To Be Effective Advocates, Young People Need Support

Posted December 6, 2017
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog tobeeffectiveadvocates 2017

This post is writ­ten by Daniel Men­doza, a found­ing mem­ber of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Youth Advi­so­ry Coun­cil, which sup­ports the Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. Men­doza cur­rent­ly stud­ies soci­ol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, in addi­tion to men­tor­ing at-risk youth and advo­cat­ing to end soli­tary con­fine­ment and oth­er harsh treat­ment of young people.

I know many of you want to work more close­ly with young peo­ple who have sys­tem expe­ri­ence. I want to share my per­spec­tive on bar­ri­ers young peo­ple may face doing that and out­line ways you could sup­port them.

I speak of this through my own expe­ri­ence. I first got intro­duced to juve­nile jus­tice advo­ca­cy as a 20-year-old. I strug­gled, and con­tin­ue to strug­gle, to bal­ance the dif­fer­ent aspects of my life and to under­stand how I fit into this world as a Chi­cano, for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed indi­vid­ual still deal­ing with trau­ma and loss.

Young peo­ple com­ing out of the sys­tem often car­ry the trau­ma that incar­cer­a­tion caus­es as well as trau­ma expe­ri­enced before they stepped through those doors. Then, for a good por­tion of those young peo­ple get­ting out, anoth­er obsta­cle is stay­ing out. Some­times, liv­ing con­di­tions and envi­ron­ment are not ide­al for these young peo­ple, espe­cial­ly if they are work­ing on their per­son­al growth. Some of the basic needs that they may lack are safe­ty, hous­ing and a sense of belonging.

Young peo­ple may need a job to pro­vide for them­selves and their fam­i­lies. The bal­ance among work, school, the need for finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty, and—in some cases—children, may tempt them to get back into old habits, often ones that got them locked up.

Before we start ask­ing young peo­ple to devote their time, sto­ries and exper­tise, we need to be con­scious and inten­tion­al that we’re going to invest in their per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment. This means help­ing young peo­ple in their phys­i­cal, men­tal, emo­tion­al and spir­i­tu­al growth while also meet­ing some of their basic needs.

We nev­er know what it means to ask for a young person’s time to join the move­ment. To them, the real ques­tion might be: Can I afford to not work my day job and poten­tial­ly not have mon­ey for rent next month? The real ques­tion might be: Can my sib­lings care for them­selves? Or: Can I afford to miss school?

It’s dif­fer­ent for every young per­son, but that is the real­i­ty of this work. You can­not be ask­ing young peo­ple to make a sac­ri­fice with­out alle­vi­at­ing some of these issues through com­pen­sa­tion, men­tor­ship and invest­ing in them.

Now, you may sim­ply say that young peo­ple could just say no. Some­times, this is not an option for them. They may have lost so much that they have noth­ing but this one pos­i­tive oppor­tu­ni­ty and chance to work toward some­thing big­ger than themselves.

This is why I feel it is impor­tant for prac­ti­tion­ers and advo­cates to always be strate­gic and mind­ful about how we are bring­ing young peo­ple to the work and what are we doing to sup­port their well-being so that they can be our part­ners for the long term.

The Casey Foundation’s Youth Advi­so­ry Coun­cil, which sup­ports the Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group, has pro­vid­ed me with skills that have allowed me to nav­i­gate dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sion­al set­tings. As a fel­low with Moti­vat­ing Indi­vid­ual Lead­er­ship for Pub­lic Advance­ment — more com­mon­ly known as MIL­PA — based out of Sali­nas, Cal­i­for­nia, I have had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work on my per­son­al devel­op­ment through heal­ing and cul­ture. Thanks to both oppor­tu­ni­ties, I feel a holis­tic sup­port behind me.

While I still have much to learn, ensur­ing that I have the tools, peo­ple and resources to keep me in this move­ment makes the dif­fer­ence and means that I am show­ing up to advo­cate every time. I feel that such sup­port is essen­tial and need­ed for all young peo­ple in this work.

Read anoth­er per­spec­tive from a youth with sys­tem experience

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